There are some things when I run across them in a novel, movie, or even religious discussion immediately set off alarm bells for me. One of them is anything involving the Nephalem. It just never turns out well and most often very silly. Another is Constantine. Constantine gets blamed for a lot by a lot of different groups. At least with the Nephalem, it is something rather mysterious with little scriptural reference. When it comes to Constantine we actually have a wealth of historical information from Christian and Pagan sources. Still Constantine is often used to pointed to as a corruptor of “pure” Christianity and the cause of the great apostasy. From Dan Brown to starters of new religions the start was not from history, but as a required plot line to justify what goes after.
I was naturally delighted when I first found out Rod Bennett was releasing a new book called The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church. A semi-sequel to his wonderful Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words. The appellation that somebody “made history come alive” is probably overused. Often I found that the author had made history interesting, but not fully alive to my intellect. Rod Bennett does make history come intellectually alive for me with his deft use of storytelling, historical writings, and the fruit of his research.
The introduction starts with a stroll to a period while he was still a Protestant and coming across a place in Tennessee called “Fields of the Wood” built up by a Preacher scandalized by the divisions in Christianity. Who was bringing back the “true church” and started a new congregation. This struck regarding how often this pattern has occurred. The person scandalized by the divisions who promptly create yet another division. The Bullwinkle-syndrome where the optimist church reformer says “This time for sure!” as he pulls another church out of his hat.
Rod Bennett describes the history of Preacher Tomlinson and this preachers own version of the Great Apostasy. This same pattern can be seen with the Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah Witnesses, Islam, and really most of Protestantism. Rod Bennett’s thinking about this preacher’s history led him to realize “Don’t I have, when it comes right down to it, a ‘Great Apostasy’ theory of my own?” This insight led him to studying church history and the reading of the Church Fathers. I think at this point it is mandatory to insert the Blessed John Newman quote “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Otherwise I could lose my Catholic blogger license.
I was not unfamiliar with this tumultuous and exciting period of Church history. Warren H. Carroll covers this period quite well in one of his volumes of “A History of Christendom.” Still I found it contextualized better and I especially appreciated the lead up in history to Constantine and the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The state of the Church and how between waves of persecution it was out in the open with various levels of toleration. Even with Diocletian there was originally some toleration before the worst of the persecutions began. It was all much more complicated than the incorrectly simplified history of Constantine being the first to grant such toleration. Especially the erroneous idea that he made Catholicism the official religion of the empire.
He also paints the state of the empire with Rome depopulated and great cities like Alexandria lapsing from their Catholic faith. This historical backdrop sets the stage for such a fascinating piece of Church history. The rise of the Arian heresy by the priest Arius, the calling of the council, and the whole wonderful story of St. Athanasius. The story of Athanasius came so alive for me along with the conjecture that he had gotten involved with St Antony and the Desert Monks at a rather early period of his life. I often felt like I was reading a novel as this history played out. The real story is so odd and seemingly implausible that it only works as history.
Rod Bennett really is a master storyteller and fully employs his skills in describing this period of history along with presenting the actual texts that we have. This is certainly a period of history with many surviving texts from those involved along with of course the Councilar texts. His subtitle is “The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church” and this certainly fits the billing. The Arians had all the power on their side. They had most of the episcopacy of the Eastern bishops and the ear of the Emperors. The figure of Athanasius was unimpressive, but his mark on history wasn’t.
I totally loved this book. So much so that no doubt it also goes on my re-read list.